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Malaysia church struggles to erase anti-migrant sentiment

As they educate the faithful, church attempts to make invisible people visible
Malaysia church struggles to erase anti-migrant sentiment

Children of illegal Filipino migrants swim in coastal waters at a settlement on Gaya Island in the Malaysian state of Sabah in this file image. There believed to be more than a million migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia in Sabah. (Photo by AFP)

Published: May 25, 2017 11:12 AM GMT

"Why do we have to take care of these people? Why can't we give priority to locals first?" asks Mary, a Malaysian housewife, referring to the thousands of migrants working in the country.

It's not an unusual sentiment. Decades of a steady flow of displaced people to its shores from neighboring countries have stoked resentment and anger among locals.

It's a sentiment Catholic Church authorities are battling against including among some in the clergy.

"It is not easy. How to erase the prejudice against migrants because when you talk about migrants here it is taboo," says John, a Catholic social worker who asked not to give his last name.

He was speaking of the challenges providing pastoral care to migrants in Sabah on Borneo Island, home to an estimated million plus migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia.

"They associate the migrants with activities like illegal voting and taking over jobs and so on," says John. "We have spent a lot of time to conscientize people of the inequalities of treatment or opportunity."

A church worker who asked not to be named, says he is involved in organizing seminars on the social teachings of the church to sensitize local Catholics to the plight of the poor.

To him there is a big gap between faith and life among Catholics.

"Our people are only asked to pray. How to link prayer to actions is left up to them," he says. "How much social teaching do we hear from the pulpit? Hardly anything. There is no connection to reality. How do we narrow that gap?"

Despite his frustration, in his eyes, there has been some progress since 2003 when pastoral care programs for migrants were organized in Sabah through the now defunct National Office for Human Development.

Peter Barnabas of the Penang Office For Human Development recounts how the Catholic Church in Malaysia has only been serving migrants and refugees in a coordinated way since 2009 after the formation of the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerants by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

The creation of offices for migrants at diocesan and parish levels was the first task. However, coordination varied from diocese to diocese due to financial constraints, ignorance of migrants' needs and disinterest by some in the clergy, says Barnabas.

As many migrants lived deep in oil palm plantations and farms in the outskirts of towns, few pastoral workers were willing and able to serve them, he says when speaking of the challenges.

In the early years, many were ignorant of church teachings and reluctant to accept migrants as part of their community, he adds.

Regular entreaties by Pope Francis to accept the migrants and refugees as their own helped change minds though "even then only a handful" took the Pope's messages to heart, he says.

De La Salle Brother Anthony Rogers, a long-standing member of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, believes the church in Malaysia has a long way to go on dealing with the migration phenomenon.

"We have to move from a church of being 'ad intra' to be a church that is called 'ad extra'. The church will die if it is just about self-survival," says Brother Rogers.

"We must move from looking out from Sunday celebrations. The sacraments must move us to service. For us service is for the poorest," he says.  

"In all the countries the biggest phenomena is the movement of migrants and refugees. And therefore, for the church to be relevant we must serve the weakest."

Brother Rogers says that Pope Francis said Catholics "have to move to the margins … to the periphery. That's the formal position."

He says what is being done is not enough.

"In every country, we have an episcopal commission for migrants, refugees. Unfortunately, in Malaysia we don't have one. Why?" he asks, explaining how the lack of such a body hampers efforts to seek comprehensive regional solutions to the issue. 

"They are the think tank and they can tell you how and what to do … work out programs and standards," he says.

Brother Roger's distress with the slow pace of change is understandable. Almost 10 years ago in an interview with ucanews.com in 2008 he spoke of addressing the causes of and finding solutions for what he called "push and pull" migration.

He was encouraged then when the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) Asia network was set up promising new ideas on dealing with the migration issue. He now sees that the lack of progress as a threat to the church's very existence.

"We as a church must stand for the rights of the most tainted. That is what Christianity is about … Jesus on the cross. There are people on the cross today," he says.

"You go and be with the people on the cross. If you don't do that Christianity becomes irrelevant. But, if we bring Christ down from the cross to the people today, relieve the suffering of the people's pains and their sorrows, that to me is the meaning of salvation," he says.

"Going to heaven is about changing sorrows and pains and bringing joy in lives of people, especially the poor… removing the tears … changing pain and sorrow into joy.

"Sorry for giving you a homily but that's what I must say," he finally adds.

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